Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
“Sloop John B” is a song that most of us have heard at least a few times in our lives. Popularized by the Beach Boys on their immortal Pet Sounds album, it has been around much longer than that. The song originally came out of the folk tradition in the Bahamas under the title “The John B. Sails.” It was transcribed as early as 1916 by Richard Le Galliene, but really came to fame in America when included by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 folk song collection The American Songbag.
From there, it was recorded multiple times over the years. Notable versions include artists as diverse as Dick Dale, Jimmie Rodgers (under the title “Wreck of the John B”), Johnny Cash (as “I Want To Go Home”), and the Kingston Trio. It was the Kingston Trio, who recorded the song as “(The Wreck of the) John B,” that had the largest influence on the Beach Boys’ take, which would explode in popularity all over the world.
The Beach Boys took the Kingston Trio’s version and modified some of the chords and lyrics, then put the song on Pet Sounds, giving it a place in one of the most celebrated and influential albums in pop history. Their version is, in true Beach Boys form, full of their signature harmonies, managing to be both somewhat wistful, homesick, and joyful all at the same time. The bouncy arrangement used by Brian Wilson has a lot to do with that. It’s easy to picture this version as a story told around a table in a bar, a grizzled old sailor spinning a yarn about the terrible trip he’s been complaining about for most of his life, laughing about it every step of the way.
When you strip the song down and examine it, though, the lyrics aren’t nearly as happy as the Beach Boys make them sound. The song oozes homesickness. The chorus repeats “let me go home” and “I wanna go home” over and over again. By the time the last verse ends with “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” it’s clear that whoever’s telling this story is eaten up with misery.
The narrator of this folk song has spent nights drinking and fighting alongside his grandfather, watching the first mate getting arrested for stealing from others on board, and having to deal with life after the ship’s cook, in what has to be one of the most hilarious rhyming couplets ever, “caught the fits and threw away all my grits.” Whatever poor guy is telling us this story was obviously not cut out for life on a ship, and it shows, no matter what the tone of the recording is.
The Beach Boys didn’t make the first recording of “Sloop John B,” but what they produced stood out so much from previous attempts that any subsequent efforts are either following in their footsteps or intentionally leaving the path blazed by Brian Wilson and company. Lots of artists have made the attempt. Some hew closely to the Beach Boys version, while others take liberties with the song that make it stand out a little more from the pack. A folk song like this has plenty of room for interpretation; the following three artists each have something that sets them apart and made them impossible to ignore. So, setting aside the Beach Boys’ definitive take:
The Meat Puppets’ cover is good.
Dwight Yoakam’s cover is better.
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ cover is the best.
The Meat Puppets have been singing “Sloop John B” in shows for a while now, and their version really plays up the sadness inherent in the song. Their vocals are oddly delicate and withdrawn, the total opposite of the Beach Boys’ boisterous delivery. The instrumentation is likewise muted, like three guys singing themselves to sleep at night on the bad journey they’re singing about. The long instrumental take at the end is oddly trancelike. They’ve worked themselves into a dream state, and for a while, at least, they can leave “the worst trip” of their lives behind.
Dwight Yoakam’s cover of “Sloop John B” is a little more traditional. His take manages to be a little bit maudlin without sounding like he’s in as much pain as the Meat Puppets. His backing band includes a mandolin and accordion, playing up the folk nature of the song as well. He sings it more slowly than the Beach Boys, but does approach their level of emotion at times, giving his signature yelps and hiccups as he brings it home. It’s like he’s realized his time sailing is almost at an end, and the hour has come for him to work himself back into a better frame of mind.
Finally, the best version since Brian Wilson and the boys is the cover by Me First and Gimme Gimmes. They start out by sampling “Teenage Lobotomy” by the Ramones, and it only gets wilder from there. If the Beach Boys are at the bar telling this story from the good old days, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have hit that bar straight from the ship and are dead set on getting drunk and rowdy. They keep the harmonies from the Beach Boys’ version, but their punk version is cathartic, ignoring the introspectiveness in many previous versions and instead throwing all that tension outward. By the time they change the words to the second verse (in this version, the poor cooks catches the shits instead of the fits), you know these guys are just about ready to tear the place down. That sense of finally getting out of something terrible and just blowing up is what makes this the best (non-Beach Boys) cover of “Sloop John B” by far.